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LCSW, CCS
Clinical Social Worker/Therapist

Walking the fine line:

  • Be available but don’t hover.
  • Ask questions but don’t interrogate.
  • Get off the eggshells and make sure you’re not enabling!

The do's and don’ts of supporting a person in recovery can feel like walking a high wire. At the root of it all, we fear that our actions or inactions will cause the person we love to return to using drugs and alcohol. This begs an interesting question:

Just how powerful do we think we are?

Do we really believe that we can cause people to relapse? Rationally, we know that we’re not responsible for their choices. Emotionally, it’s common for friends and family to feel that they have let their loved ones in recovery down when they return to using. The underlying dynamic is that we have the same fears as our loved ones (that they’ll go back to using) but there’s one important difference: they have 100% control over whether they go back and we have none.

The Balance between Powerful and Powerless

Powerlessness is one of life’s hardest lessons and acceptance is always optional. When we go looking for ways to control what we’re powerless over; we always pay a high price. We lose sight of the personal responsibility of the addict to manage their remission and not allow their disease to return to the forefront.

Instead of putting pressure on ourselves, we can reduce our stress by asking our loved ones simply and directly, What can I do to help?” This allows us to do three very important things:

  1. Maintain mutually agreed upon boundaries (ensuring respect, privacy and healthy interaction).
  2. Be supportive in healthy ways that are overtly sought. (Support our loved ones will be invested in receiving).
  3. Invest in our own lives.

Worrying Doesn't Help

Knowing that others have placed their lives on hold while we’re getting sober and going through early recovery tends to produce guilt and shame for the person in recovery. It’s akin to worrying about the people who worry about you. It’s all well intended, but at the end of the day; nobody benefits and everybody pays.

For 'affected others' (those close to/impacted by the person in recovery), taking care of ourselves often feels selfish. How can we consider our own needs when others are struggling? Our own goals and problems seem to pale by comparison. The fact that we make these comparisons and view needs as relative is unhealthy in and of itself. We somehow view fretting as an expression of love.

  • Being concerned is healthy. There’s a old adage that worrying creates the illusion of involvement. It makes us feel like we’re doing something when in fact we’re wasting time, energy, and compromising our G.I. and immune systems. We easily become enmeshed in the lives of our loved ones and in monitoring their well being, we neglect our own.

Care for Yourself

Love is so much more than sacrifice. Taking care of ourselves is not selfish. In truth, practicing excellent self care makes us better able to support those we love. If we are brutally honest with ourselves, we may find that we have used the struggles of others to justify not addressing obstacles in our own lives.

The Role of Self Help

Affected others often overlook the benefits of self help programs like Al-Anon and Nar-Anon. We view these offers as well intended but conclude that we’re fine – it’s our loved ones that need help. We get stuck in problem solving paradigms and fail to view recovery for ourselves as something that provides support, growth, healing, and ultimately, transformation.

It’s a difficult road supporting loved ones in recovery. It can easily be an emotional roller-coaster of highs and lows whether they return to using or not. The opportunity to relate to others who can identify with our experiences is invaluable. The prospect of growth makes things possible in our lives that previously were not.

Investing in Family - Becoming Interdependent

Families impacted by addiction often struggle to relate to each other in healthy ways. Lost in the black and white conversations of being codependent vs. independent is the concept of being interdependent. This third option conceptualizes people who are independent and depending/relying on one another in healthy ways.

How we relate to one another is based in our identities and not simply in the roles we play in each other’s lives. In codependent families we are far more aware of our roles and what is expected of us than who we wish to be and what we expect of ourselves.

When we invest in ourselves, we dig deeper and see the ways in which our families fail to function optimally. We come to see that so many important dynamics – expectations, feelings, unmet needs and wants have gone unspoken. This gives us the opportunity to move way from seeing the person in recovery as the “sick one” and affords us the opportunity to grow together.

This perhaps is the greatest gift of all: out of tragedy and loss comes a new beginning . We receive the chance to love each other more fully. All of us are free to transform.

About the author Jim LaPierre:
My story is I'm forever a work in progress and I love connecting with REAL people who are doing great things. I'm blessed to be making a living doing something I love. I'm a proud dad and the luckiest husband ever. I'm an aspiring author - check out my recovery blog at: recoveryrocks.bangordailynews.com Thanks! Jim
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Page last updated Sep 03, 2013

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